Smoking Wars Move into Condo Complex

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Paul Senter, 85, enjoys a cigar now and then. But unlike many smokers these days, he refuses to be a pariah in his own home.
 
You will not see him slinking out to his condominium balcony.
 
“That’s not for me,” he says. “It’s cold out there in the wintertime.”
 
So he lights up inside. He owns the place, after all. What Senter does in the privacy of his own condo is his business, right?
 
Well, maybe not. The board of the West Grand Towers condominium complex at 3663 Grand Avenue in Des Moines wants to ban smoking throughout the entire facility. That includes the individual units and possibly the balconies outside those units.
 
“They must have known smoking was allowed when they moved in,” says Senter, one of maybe a dozen smokers in 80-plus condos. “They’re trying to take our rights away. You wonder what they’re going to do next.”
 
No sex on Sunday?
 
I’m not ripping the board here, although it did add needless spice to the controversy by adopting the policy in a closed, executive session. Smokers and non-smokers alike thought that was the wrong way to go and wrote letters to the board saying so.
 
“Even if it was the right thing to do, I don’t like the way they did it,” says resident Tom Fisher, a non-smoker.
When pets were banned, the proposal was put to a vote.
 
“That’s the only fair way to settle it,” Senter says. “They gave us no chance to vote on it this time.”
The board, to its credit, listened and agreed to suspend the new no-smoking policy until July 30. The board will accept written comments until then. It’ll also hold a meeting on Monday open to all condo owners.
 
West Grand Towers was an apartment building when it went up in 1963. There’s one heating and cooling unit sending air through the entire building. When the residents turn the air or heat up or down, they’re regulating the flow, not the temperature.
 
Fisher says it’s like they’re all breathing the same recycled air in the same airplane.
 
Resident John Viars looked into the matter as a board member last year. You may know Viars as the executive director of the Des Moines Playhouse.
 
At 3663 Grand, he’s also the guy who made the motion to ban smoking for all new owners. Let attrition handle the problem, he figured.
 
The lawyers advised not to wait for attrition, and the surgeon general seems to agree: It’s impossible to keep secondhand smoke from spreading through any building. And even the “most sophisticated ventilation systems” can’t stop it.
 
What’s more, the effects are far worse than researchers thought. Even small exposure can cause big problems.
The good news, to non-smokers anyway, is that eliminating smoking eliminates the problem.
 
The Tobacco Public Policy Center in Ohio chimes in, saying that there’s no legally protected right to smoke in one’s condo unit and that condo owners could be held liable when someone like Viars comes down with health problems related to secondhand smoke.
 
Viars became allergic to cigarette smoke later in life. He doesn’t know why, but he did. “If a person is lighting a cigarette on my floor,” he says, “I can tell. I tear up and my throat gets raspy.”
 
He and his wife tried everything.
“The only way we’re free from it is if we literally lock ourselves in a small bedroom, cover the vents and turn on the air purifier,” Viars says.
 
Most of the residents I talked to were hoping for a compromise – allowing smoking on the balconies, for instance.
“You don’t want to take away individual freedoms,” Viars says, “but you don’t want to harm people with the exercise of those freedoms.”
 
The way things are going in the smoking wars, however, it won’t be much of a compromise. The trend is not the smoker’s friend.
 
The Des Moines City Council supports a new proposal to ban smoking in and around public parks. Urbandale, Pleasant Hill, Indianola and Johnston have tightened smoking restrictions.
 
For most of us, the no-smoking scourge has been a positive development. But someone like Senter isn’t about to turn over a new leaf at this stage in the game.
 
Senter stopped smoking cigarettes a long time ago. Isn’t that enough trauma and sacrifice for one lifetime?
 
The situation brings to mind a cartoon – maybe it was in the New Yorker. A regal fellow wearing a crown and an ermine coat is sitting outside the gate of a huge palace.
 
He’s smoking a cigarette. Nobody gets a pass anymore, not even the king of the castle.

Originally written By: Marc Hansen 

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